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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The A-Z of Mrs. P
Southwark Playhouse   Spring 2014

This amiable little musical features some strong performances and stylish staging, but it falls for the oddest of reasons – its creators seem to have lost faith in their central figure midway through the writing. 

The show – book by Diane Samuels, songs by Gwyneth Herbert – is nominally about Phyllis Pearsall, compiler in 1936 of the London A-Z, the ubiquitous paperback book of street maps of greater London, essential in a sprawling city without a regular grid or numbered streets, where corners never seem to be at right angles, and even major streets tend to change names every few blocks. 

But Mrs. P, at least as Samuels and Herbert imagine her, turns out to be a considerably less interesting figure than you might imagine. 

Far from being a visionary and entrepreneur, she merely joined the family firm of mapmakers, following long-distance orders from her father, who had just published similar maps for New York. She didn't walk the entire length and breadth of London, but relied largely on previous maps, and her one real contribution – compiling the essential index – while a monumental accomplishment, is not a particularly theatrical one. 

Clearly sensing that Mrs. P's story wasn't interesting enough to carry a show, the writers found themselves turning increasingly to the story of her parents, first through memory and flashback scenes to flesh out her character, but soon as a competing plot line that fights for our attention and largely wins.

Her father was an immigrant, self-made entrepreneur, monster of ego, bully and womaniser; her mother a charming and romantic young woman eventually beaten down by her husband's bullying and philandering into alcoholism, addiction and madness. 

It is little wonder that their stories hold the stage more successfully than scenes of their daughter organising her file cards. But Samuels and Herbert evidently weren't prepared to make the leap of recognising who their show was really about (as Laurents, Styne and Sondheim did in Gypsy), and so we get a musical that tries to be about its less interesting character and plot while its heart and life are really elsewhere.

Isy Suttie brings loads of charm and acting strength to the role of Phyllis, constantly fighting the fact that the role is woefully underwritten. The real stars of the show are Michael Matus as the father and Frances Ruffelle as mother, both dominating the stage with the combination of well-written roles and dynamic performances. 

They get some of the best songs, which they make the most of, and Matus in particular creates a fascinating and magnetic theatrical monster. 

Gwyneth Herbert's songs are serviceable without being memorable, her music occasionally (as is the case with every young theatre composer of the past fifty years) echoing Stephen Sondheim and her lyrics reaching a peak in a patter song of street names. The staging by Sam Buntrock and Nick Winston is attractive and inventive, and there are warm supporting performances by Sidney Livingstone, Ian Caddick and the rest of the cast.

If you're going to rewrite Gypsy, you have to recognise from the start that the show is about Mama Rose and not Louise. There may be a musical in the life of Phyllis Pearsall, but Samuels and Herbert haven't found it, and a show openly about Pearsall's father would have a coherence, focus and vitality this one lacks.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The A-Z of Mrs. P - Southwark Playhouse 2014

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